As an instructor of character animation at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) I used to teach my students about animation storytelling by breaking it down to its most basic elements.
In animation there are two basic story structures for most films. They are;
Good Versus Evil and what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey or what I call, The Adventures of…
Most films these days are of the Good Versus Evil variety because they most readily allow for the production of a sequel or even a series of sequels or even prequels. This form consists of a good guy, the Hero, and a bad guy, the Villain. The basic plot is either that the good guy wants something, he has a set goal and the villain tries to stop him from attaining his goal. Or, the villain has a goal and the hero tries to stop him from attaining his goal. It is not necessary for the villain to die at the end of the story, in fact, it is detrimental to the potential movie series to kill off the villain. Rather he is simply defeated or vanquished, promising to return later for revenge (in the sequel).
Some classic examples of Good Versus Hero animated films are;
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – The first full length animated film pitted sweet, innocent Snow White and her seven little protectors against her stepmother, the Queen, who wanted to kill her simply out of jealousy of her beauty.
Peter Pan – Lost boy Peter fights almost to the death with Captain Hook. Why is never fully explained except that at one time Peter had cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to the crocodile but obviously they were enemies already.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians – Dalmatian dog parents set out to retrieve their stolen litter of puppies wanted by evil fashionista Cruella DeVille who just wanted a new dog coat.
Between Cruella DeVille and Snow White’s step mom what was the message Disney was trying to tell us about women? Ever notice how many Disney characters were motherless? A quick list: Snow White, Peter Pan, Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Bambi (after the first half), Cinderella, Arthur (King Arthur from The Sword in the Stone), Mogli (The Jungle Book), Princess Jasmine (Aladdin), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), there are more but you get the point.
For The Hero’s Journey / The Adventures Of story format a character, usually hesitantly, embarks on a journey or quest and substantially changes during the course of the story. A boy becomes a man, a coward becomes a hero, an elephant learns to fly, something happens that changes the character forever. Although this is a classic form it is harder to create sequels from this format as the character going through a change basically is the story and once that’s happened it is hard to come up with more changes. Hercules is an example of a story that dealt with his problem by making the Disney television series version a prequel. We see the character before he started his adventures that lead to his becoming a hero. Some other Disney films based on the Hero’s Journey are;
Pinocchio – A puppet goes through a series of trials with a series of assorted bad guys on his way to becoming a real boy.
Bambi – Basically the life story of a deer in a forest doing deer things with the closest thing to a villain being the humans who kill his mother and burn down his forest, but it wasn’t personal.
Lady And The Tramp – A couple of dogs from opposite sides of the tracks find true love. Of course they are trials along the way but the dogs are essentially fully formed characters when they meet. The only changes they go through are conquering their own prejudices against each others breed.
The Adventures Of style of story gives the most opportunity to explore different societies and life experiences and therefore can be the most educational. Unfortunately, a good guy fighting a bad guy provides a thrill, is easier to write and has the most financial potential.